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A pile of dirt worth its weight in gold

SIXTY Foot is an odd name for a road, but not in Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum. It was hastily slapped together to mark Rajiv Gandhi’s visit in 1985, and the width so impressed the locals that the new thoroughfare came to be known by its dimensions.

Written by Farahbaria |
September 23, 2006 4:32:40 pm

SIXTY Foot is an odd name for a road, but not in Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum. It was hastily slapped together to mark Rajiv Gandhi’s visit in 1985, and the width so impressed the locals that the new thoroughfare came to be known by its dimensions. No one has cared to baptise it otherwise.

For Mumbai, 60-Foot Road is just another slovenly street, flanked by a row of tinpot skyscrapers. But in the gullies of Dharavi, it is a fashionable address, the Mecca of aspiring millions.

It’s easy to see why. This is where the potters of Kumbharwada—Dharavi’s original settlers—came from Saurashtra in 1937 to set up shop in what was once a fetid bog populated by convicts, bootleggers and Koli fisherfolk. Crime flourished in the marshes, and those who escaped the law were felled by the anopheles mosquito.

That, however, did not stop others in search of a livelihood. During Mumbai’s migrant boom in the ‘50s, Dharavi became home to impoverished craftsmen from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu. They were accommodated in the Dharavi Transit Camp, a row of “temporary” barracks that, five decades later, still house fourth-generation émigrés who won’t dream of moving out.

Around the camp, the slum continues to grow, 400,000 people squashed into an impossible 535 acres. Commerce hums over the chaos, a discordant orchestra of sewing machines, electric saws, hammers and industrial appliances that churn out goods worth Rs 2000 crore every year.

Nearly two-third of the 56,000 shanties are family-owned cottage industries, making an astonishing range of products, from glass bangles and bindis to plastic buckets, toys, surgical sutures, papads and sweetmeats. Others provide subsidiary services to Dharavi’s famous garment factories, scrap yards and tanneries. Meanwhile, the ethnic occupations still flourish. Gujarati immigrants continue to make pots, the Biharis excel at zardozi, and the Tamils own the ubiquitous Udipi on every street corner of this ‘Mini India’.

The sobriquet is threadbare but fitting: Dharavi is India in microcosm, diverse, deprived, and determined to survive—by wit or wile. Barely 10 percent of the frenetic commercial activity is legal. Most of the workshops are constructed on government land, power is impudently filched or metered at domestic rates, and commercial licenses are rarely sought. There is just one toilet for every 1,500 residents, not a single public hospital, and only a dozen municipal schools.

Yet, the average household earns between Rs 3,000 and Rs 15,000 per month, driving an insatiable consumer craze. The money has spawned a new slum gentry, self-made petty tycoons who have struggled to rise above their destiny. And so, the unthinkable has happened: Dharavi has become respectable. Glitzy pubs, bold beauty parlours and swish little leather boutiques are pushing through the squalor, like uneasy hothouse flowers in an inhospitable junkyard.

Today, this pile of dirt is worth its weight in gold. The reason is simple. In a city where every square foot has been systematically plundered and exploited, Dharavi is still virgin territory for Mumbai’s rapacious land sharks, who have, for decades, nipped at its fringes.

Now plans are afoot to swallow it whole, with a Dharavi Redevelopment Project (DRP).The blueprint, drawn up by an NRI architect, Mukesh Mehta, is predictably utopian: Builders get 535 acres of prime land, in return for providing free housing to 52,000 families—plus hospitals, schools, international craft villages, peace parks, art galleries, an experimental theatre and a cricket museum!

But since the “apartments” need be no more than 225 sq ft each, and the minimum distance between two buildings no more than five metres, there will be quite a bit of surplus land. A cool two crore sq ft, to be exact, which builders may sell in the commercial market. In addition, the Government has granted an unprecedented Floor Space Index (the ratio of total floor area to the plot size) of four—considerably higher than Mumbai’s standard 1.3—as a “bait” to potential developers. No wonder the sharks can’t wait to bite. And with Rs 2,700 crore expected to land in the official kitty, neither can the state government.

Not everyone is delighted. Dharavi’s vociferous NGOs have accused the Government of “banishing the poor”, after grabbing their land in connivance with the builders’ lobby. And the state-instituted Chitale Committee has warned that the project will turn the slum into the most densely populated place on earth, posing a grave civic risk.

Meanwhile, the Anti-Corruption Bureau has arrested seven officials from the Slum Rehabilitation Authority, which is spearheading 1,500 such schemes across the city, on charges of forgery, listing fictitious tenants, and profiteering. The scam has confirmed rumours of endemic fraud and bribery running into hundreds of crores.

Hardly an auspicious start to the world’s most ambitious urban renewal plan. But then, Dharavi is well used to bleak beginnings.

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